How to Prepare for Multiple Mini-Interviews, Part 2

By Jeremiah Fleenor, MD, MBA

In part 1 of this two part series we looked at some of the reasons why ADCOMs (admissions committes) are searching for a new way to assess an applicant’s personality. The correlation between an applicant’s GPA and their future success in the didactical components of medical school is well established. The new frontier is a more fair and predictive way to evaluate an applicant’s character, ethics, and communication skills. That evaluation tool seems to be found in the multiple mini-interview (MMI). Continue reading How to Prepare for Multiple Mini-Interviews, Part 2

Admissions Committees are Inspecting Your Social Networking Sites

By Suzanne M Miller, MD, FACEP

We all knew it was coming. Prospective employers are already doing it. Other admissions committees do it. And now it has arrived in the medical admissions world – medical school and residency admissions committees are considering social networking and media (SN) sites as part of the admissions process. In the study, “Influence of social networking websites on medical school and residency selection process,” Dr. Carl Schulman and colleagues found that while a minority of medical schools and residency programs currently routinely use candidates’ social media presence in the selection process, a majority “felt unprofessional information on an applicants’ SN site could compromise their admissions into medical school and residency.” It is safe to say your social media presence is considered fair game by most medical school and residency admissions committees. If they looked at your SN sites today, what would they find? Continue reading Admissions Committees are Inspecting Your Social Networking Sites

What Is Your Weakness?

By Samir P. Desai, MD and Rajani Katta, MD

An excerpt from Medical School Interview: Winning Strategies from Admissions Faculty

In 2011, the AAMC published a survey that evaluated the importance of 12 variables on medical school admissions decisions. These variables included total MCAT scores, science and math GPA, and the interview. The interview was rated the most important factor. “High grades and/or MCAT scores alone are never enough,” writes the LSU Shreveport School of Medicine. “For those interviewed, impressions from the personal interview are exceedingly important.” Continue reading What Is Your Weakness?

Premedical Preparation

By Dr. Lisabetta Divita

While the profession has changed over the past few decades, being a physician is a challenging and esteemed calling.  As such, medical school admissions are quite competitive.  Medical school applicants are required to complete the AAMC or AACOMAS applications, take the MCAT and fly out for interviews. Even with all of these requirements, sadly, many excellent candidates are rejected each year.  This can be a blow to your ego but if you are determined to reach your dreams, your premedical preparation cannot begin too early—some important decisions are made in high school.

Premedical Preparation – Inside the Classroom

Your first major decision will be to choose a college that can provide you with a strong background in the premedical sciences. While some students may begin their college education at a community college, medical schools will be looking for a bachelor’s degree from a university. If you are going to start at a community college, make sure that your credits will transfer to a four-year college. Remember that you will be competing with other students for a few coveted medical school seats. The education at a community college may be excellent, but the people reviewing your application will want to know that those grades came from a college with a reasonably stringent acceptance policy.

Perhaps surprisingly, your undergraduate major does not need to be in the biological sciences. Sure, many pre-meds will be biology majors, but they will be sitting next to history majors, economics and philosophy majors on the first day of medical school. In fact, medical school admissions officers like to see candidates with diverse backgrounds. Major in something that you truly enjoy because those are the classes that you can ace.

While the college major is not important, there are a number of courses that are required of everyone applying to medical school. At a minimum, applicants will be required to take two semesters or three quarters each of biology, general chemistry, and organic chemistry and one semester or two quarters of physics. Each of these semesters or quarters must be combined with a laboratory associated with the class. Students are also required to complete a calculus course. Special emphasis is placed on these eight courses and seven labs. In fact, on the medical school application there is a separate space for the grades from these courses apart from the rest of the college grades.

A particular college major may not matter, but these pre-med courses are the equalizer. Most successful applicants will get (or nearly get) straight A’s on these courses. The overall grade point average for those applying to medical school is pretty high. Most admissions officers are looking for GPAs above 3.75. Can you get into med school with a lower GPA? Of course you can. However, the better you do in your classes and in the pre-med classes, the better your chances of being accepted.

The other equalizing factor is the Medical College Admissions Test or MCAT. Unfortunately, this score may be used to “thin the herd” so you will need to achieve the highest score you can. The MCAT has three main sections: Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, and Biological Sciences. The Physical Sciences section contains questions covering college general chemistry and physics courses. Likewise, the Biological Sciences section contains questions from biology and organic chemistry. Verbal Reasoning follows a format similar but not identical to the Verbal sections on the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test). There is also a Writing Sample section on the MCAT, but this score is not as important as the other three sections since it does not factor into your overall numerical MCAT score. Each of the three sections is scored from 1 to 15, making the maximum MCAT score a 45. While there is no magic cutoff number applied by all medical school admissions departments, a good rule of thumb is a score of at least 30.

Grades in classes and exams are important because they are an easy numerical way to sort through hundreds of applications from qualified candidates. Getting into medical school is not only a matter of grades and scores, but these scores can get your foot in the door so that that the rest of your medical school application is considered.

Premedical Preparation – Outside of the Classroom

Grades and standardized exams are only one part of the medical school application. You are essentially putting your entire academic life into a single application package—a package that will be heavily scrutinized. While good grades and scores will require a huge amount of time and energy to achieve, they really only get you in the door. It is the rest of your medical school application will set you apart from the competition. Once you are in the door, an important part of your medical school application package is what you did outside of the classroom.

Extracurricular Activities

There are two big mistakes that premedical students seem to make when it comes to extracurricular activities: either they load up on a number of relatively meaningless extracurricular activities just so that they can list them on an application or they feel that extracurricular activities are a time-waster that could be better spent studying. Both of these mistakes can be enough to get you rejected from medical school. The far better option is to pick one or two extracurricular activities that you believe in and work to make a real difference in that organization.

The concept of extracurricular activities can be foreign to study-frenzied pre-med students, but the reason that medical school admissions officers look at meaningful participation in extracurricular activities is because it gives them a good idea of the nature and dedication of the applicant just by seeing it on paper. From the applicant’s perspective, it is always good to work outside of yourself—depending on the extracurricular activity that you choose, you may get personal rewards that go beyond a line on an application.

Choose a cause you can really get behind. Just like the choice of a major, it is the strength of your conviction and dedication that will carry you rather than the name or type of organization. It will not seem like a time-waster if you are making a difference. Find an extracurricular organization and run for office. This level of responsibility will help ensure that you are giving your all and will also look better on an application than a simple membership. When you do list your extracurricular activity, make sure to highlight your accomplishments during that time.

Volunteer Work

You should be volunteering in some capacity from the time you enter college, if not earlier. A good rule of thumb is to volunteer at least three hours a week for each year you are in college. The people that review your application will look for your volunteer work and expect to see it. If it is not there, it could count against you in the admissions process.

Unless you go to college in an extremely rural area, your local hospital will have a well-organized volunteer services office. You simply go to this office and look over a list of volunteering options and pick one that interests you. These options are usually for a few hours a week and include anything from greeting friends and family in the emergency department to helping anesthesiology technicians in the surgical center. Finding volunteer opportunities in this way is easy and the jobs really do help patients and healthcare workers.

For more motivated students, you can try to find less well-established volunteer opportunities. Perhaps a position at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter is right for you. There are countless ways that a person can help. Just like with extracurricular activities, choose a volunteer activity that you truly believe in so that volunteering is a pleasure and not simply an obligation.

Research

Most medical schools are looking for some sort of research experience on your application. Your premedical laboratory coursework does not count. Admissions officers are looking for time that you spent in a real lab. The biological sciences departments of most colleges will have faculty doing basic research. If your college is affiliated with a teaching hospital, there may be some faculty participating in clinical research as well. Colleges and universities are proud of their researchers. They will have literature and Web pages that describe each researcher’s work. Start by reading about the work that is being done on your campus.

There are some rules that apply to essentially all research faculty: 1) They are passionate about their research, 2) They love telling people about their work, 3) Their research is less well-funded than they would like it to be, 4) They would welcome a pair of hands to help them conduct research. Taken together, this means that any motivated premedical student should have no trouble finding an unpaid position in a laboratory on campus. Approach one or two faculty about the possibility of working in the lab and tell them you are interested in learning techniques and performing research. Also let them know you would ideally like to work on your own project. Mention, too, that you will work for free. If you do well, there may be some grant money around to provide you with a small stipend later. Part of your payment may even be co-authorship on a scientific journal article!

By understanding the preparation required for applying to medical school, you will be better positioned to be successful in the application process.  This was just a brief summary outlining the preparation required to obtain successful admission to medical school.  I wish you luck on your health professional school application and good luck if you are on to your to health professional school!

Dr. Lisabetta Divita is a physician, medical writer/editor and premedical student mentor.

This article was originally published on StudentDoctor.net on May 2, 2010.

Not Another Crayon in the Box: Writing a Successful Personal Statement for Medical School Part 2

By Alex M. Jennings

Part two of a two part series. Part one may be found here.

Personal Narratives

The medical school admissions committee members interviewed in the aforementioned studies offer plenty of advice on what they are looking for in a good PS. Mark Stewart, author of Perfect Personal Statements, offers this advice: “Strive for depth, not breadth. An effective personal statement will focus on one or two specific themes, incidents, or points” (Stewart, 2002). Thus, despite there being five rhetorical moves, you need not use as many personal narratives: keep it short, focused, and poignant. Content is the key.

Judy Colwell, Assistant Director. Of Admissions at Stanford Medical School, said that as far as content, they want applicants to show who they are. She continues: “Some personal statements are so wonderfully written that we’ll get goose bumps or be in tears. Most applicants don’t write so beautifully, of course (Stewart, 2002).” With thoughtful consideration, you should be able to find the right stories to tell. Then, maybe your PS will have as deep an effect on your reader as Colwell says.

One way that you can show who you are is by revealing thoughtful, personal insight. For example, J. Freedman, from StudentDoctor.net, says that he has read hundreds of narratives about healthcare experiences. These can get trite and boring, he says, “yet the good ones still stand out and tell me so much about the applicant’s motivation, character, maturity and insight (Freedman, 2010).” His point is that it is not just what you say, but how you choose to convey your insights—that is what makes all the difference.

There are several ways to add color to the picture you are painting of yourself through your PS. The Carnegie Mellon Health Professions Advisement office offers some good ideas, including:
…using sensory details to help set scenes, like mentioning what the sky looks like, what color a child’s dress is, or how the food smells. This is one way to make sure your reader is right there with you. You can also share your personal emotions and indicate how your surroundings affected you. This will give the reader a better idea of your individualism, and make experiences that may be common seem unique (“Tips for Writing Personal Statements”).

By following these suggestions, you will ensure that you “show, rather than tell”, who you are. There are also several style details of which you need to be aware. One of them has to do with length limitations. Since you only have 4500-5300 characters to work with, depending on where you apply, there is not enough space for a full introduction or conclusions. You should also avoid “hackneyed introductions and conclusion clichés” (Stewart, 2002). In addition, Stewart warns against referring to yourself in the third person (“Alex will make a great physician because he…”), trying to impress with vocabulary or technical jargon, and doing anything gimmicky with fonts, formats, or rhyming schemes (p. 16-19). One reviewer recalls receiving a PS where the text was shaped into a large tear-drop and written in rhyming couplets. Although originality is key, don’t be annoying and overbearing! Doing so will hurt, rather than help your chances of getting an interview.

Conclusion

“Show, don’t tell!” –This trite expression is oft repeated to pre-medical students. While it may be a good piece of advice, it’s something that is easier said than done. Hopefully, with this summary of relevant research, you will see the importance of weaving deep, personal insights into a standard rhetorical framework. Although the medical school application essay prompt is designed to let you freely express yourself, research has shown that the most successful PSs follow these highlighted suggestions.

The biggest task left to you now, as an aspiring future physician, is to think deeply about which experiences have shaped your life the most. You need to dig deep to uncover that poignant experience which fuels your drive to medicine. It’s a hard path you’ve chosen, but only you know why this is right for you. As you consider which stories to tell, make sure not to just tell the reader what you think they want to hear. If you’re wondering about how to tie in your experience as a missionary in Guatemala, your difficulties in overcoming challenges as a minority, or whatever it may be, first ask yourself the following: Is this a part of my identity and reason for pursuing medicine? Remember that what an experience means to you is more important than how impressive it looks to others.

According to Bekins et al. (2004), your audience wants to see “a clear statement of what the applicant had learned from his or her life experiences” (p.60). Introspection and reflection, showing how “life lessons” shaped your thinking or behavior, count more than technical preparation. Even blemishes on your record can help you, if you show what you learned from them (p. 67).

Life is about to become complicated for those of you who are preparing for medical school. You’re studying for the MCAT, securing your letters of recommendation, and filling out your applications—all time consuming, tedious tasks. When you feel overwhelmed, or when you get to work on your PS and can’t think of what to mention, simply pretend you are just writing to a friend about why you want to go into medicine (Harvard University, 2011). If you get stuck or frustrated, just think about how deeply your essay could affect your readers. How much relief will you feel when you get an interview, and you find out it was because of your thoughtful PS? Writing well can be difficult, but with these tips, the keys are now in your hands.

This article was originally published on StudentDoctor.net on September 26, 2012.

References
American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service. (2011). AACOMAS Application Instructions 2012, 13. Retrieved from http://www.aacom.org/Documents/AACOMASInstructions.pdf

American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). (2011). How to apply. Retrieved from https://www.aamc.org/students/applying/amcas/how_to_apply/.

Barton, E., Ariail, J., & Smith, T. (2004). The professional in the personal: The genre of personal statements in residency applications. Issues in Writing, 15(1), 76-124.

Bekins, L. K., Huckin, T. N., & Kijak, L. (2004). The personal statement in medical school applications: Rhetorical structure in a diverse and unstable context.Issues in Writing,15(1), 56-75.

Corbett, E. P. J. (1990). Classical rhetoric for the modern student. New York: Oxford University Press, 1.
Farmer, J. (2007). Before you write your personal statement, read this. StudentDoctor.net. Retrieved from http://studentdoctor.net/2007/06/before-you-write-your-personal-statement-read-this/

Freedman, J. (2010). Personal statement myths. StudentDoctor.net. Retrieved from http://studentdoctor.net/2010/04/personal-statement-myths/.

Harvard Medical School (HMS). (2011). Class Statistics. Retrieved from http://hms.harvard.edu/admissions/default.asp?page=statistics

Harvard University. (2011). The Medical School Personal Statement. [Powerpoint Presentation]. Retrieved from http://www.ocs.fas.harvard.edu/students/careers/medicine/applicationprocess/ personal_statement_2011.pdf

Huiling D. (2007). Genre analysis of personal statements: Analysis of moves in application essays to medical and dental schools. English for Specific Purposes, 26(3): 368-392.
Jones, S., & Baer, E. A. (2003). Essays that worked for medical school. Westminster, MD: Ballantine Books, 32-34, 40.

Stewart, M. (2002). Perfect personal statements: law, business, medical, graduate school. Lawrenceville, NJ: Peterson’s. In order of reference, the following pages were consulted: 112, 8, 111, 105, 16-19
Tips for Writing Personal Statements. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Health Professions Program. Retrieved from http://www.cmu.edu/hpp/achieve/pstips.html

Not Another Crayon in the Box: Writing a Successful Personal Statement for Medical School Part 1

By Alex M. Jennings

Although there are numerous options for writing a personal statement (PS), successful ones incorporate insightful personal narratives into standard rhetorical moves, captivating medical school admissions committees while relaying pertinent information. Every year, competition to get into medical school gets fiercer. As a result, successful applicants have increasingly higher MCAT scores and GPAs, making it harder for individuals to stand out. The application’s PS section is what provides this opportunity. Though it cannot substitute for low scores, it can be a deciding factor in whether or not students are accepted. It is a personal essay, which presents applicants as individuals, future-physicians, and ideal candidates for their medical schools of choice. The most compelling studies and expert opinions indicate that successful PSs tend to follow five major rhetorical steps as they incorporate personal narratives. Following these suggestions will help medical school applicants to secure that much-coveted interview.

You’ve worked hard as an undergraduate, earning a respectable GPA and competitive MCAT scores. Experiences in leadership, community service, research, and physician-shadowing line your resume. Your favorite professors, boss, and director of the local hospital volunteer program have all written you glowing letters of recommendation. Now you want to apply to medical school, and you think you have a good chance of making it into your top choices. Does this sound like you?

Unfortunately, this generic profile describes almost every one of the thousands of applicants to medical school each year. According to their “Class Statistics” webpage, Harvard Medical School’s entering class this year (2011) has an average GPA of 3.8 and composite MCAT score of 36, not to mention a wealth of diverse backgrounds and pre-medical experiences. For a class size of 165, they received over 5,400 applications—a 3% acceptance rate (HMS, 2011). Yet Harvard is hardly alone among the nation’s one hundred and sixty-one MD/DO programs in statistics like these. This begs the question: When standing shoulder to shoulder with the nation’s best and brightest, how do you stand tall enough to be seen? The answer lies within one of the most overlooked areas of the medical school application—the personal statement. This is what makes you stick out, so applications committees can tell you’re “not just another crayon in the box.” Although there are numerous options for writing a PS, successful ones incorporate insightful personal narratives into five standard rhetorical moves, captivating medical school admissions committees while relaying pertinent information.

The Role of the Personal Statement

The PS is unique within professional writing. Though it is a crucial part of medical education, professionals in the field do not write it—only novices do (Bekins et al., 2004). As a result, successful writing instruction is often overlooked by pre-medical courses, so applicants are often lacking in formal instruction on how to write a good PS. Years of science-heavy instruction (the most common background for pre-meds) only exacerbates this problem by limiting writing to research reports and academic analyses.

Unfortunately, the prompt given in the AMCAS application doesn’t offer much more clarification. It reads: “The Essay(s) section is where you will compose your personal comments explaining any pertinent information not included elsewhere in the application.” Other than this vague instruction, the only other criteria given by the application is. “The available space for this essay is 5300 characters (spaces are counted as characters), or approximately one page” (AMCAS, 2011). For the osteopathic (DO) schools application, the character restriction is limited to 4500, including spaces (AACOMAS, 2011). So what kind of “pertinent information” you should share?

The personal statement is your opportunity to show the most “pertinent information” of all: the genuine, diligent, driven, future physician behind all the numbers. “What we can’t tell from grades and scores,” says one admissions committee member, “is whether the applicant will thrive in a medical career. That’s where the PS comes in (Bekins et al., 2004).” This is your chance to show that you are the kind of person who will “thrive in a medical career.” But how?

According to Pat Fero, the director of admissions at the University of Washington, one mistake many applicants make is “discussing their intellectual capabilities as a major factor in being a good candidate for medicine” (Stewart, 2002). The reason why, she gives, is because it is redundant. Your application already contains sections for coursework, test scores, research, community service, etc.—lists that show what you have accomplished. While these experiences may seem unique to you, they demonstrate intellectual capacities shared by the majority of applicants. In contrast, the PS is what brings these somewhat generic statistics to life, giving the evaluators a glimpse into your mind and heart. This is your first chance to show, rather than tell, who you are.

To write a successful PS, follow the style moves suggested by experts, but tailor them to your own experience. Despite following a similar format, PSs reveal individuality by sharing thoughtful, personal insights.The most successful PSs do two things: they follow a standard rhetorical format and use authentic personal narratives.

Standard Rhetorical Format

In order to succeed in any professional career, you must first have a good understanding of rhetoric. This is defined as “the art of discourse…that aims to improve the facility of speakers or writers who attempt to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations” (Corbett, 1990). In the case of the PS, you are the writer, your audience is the applications committee, and your intent is to get them to extend you an interview. This is where the “rhetorical steps” come in.

The most successful PSs follow five rhetorical steps. These have been observed by several independent researchers, in collaboration with admissions committee evaluators, who analyzed hundreds of PSs looking for rhetorical trends (Jones & Baer, 2003). The five steps are the “hook”, program, background, self-promotion, and projection (Bekins et al., 2004).

As a word of caution, these steps should not form separate paragraphs; rather, they are tools to help you to “inform, persuade, or motivate” your audience (Corbett, 1990). As such, they should be worked into the fabric of your PS without overtly drawing attention to themselves. These five rhetorical moves are the wooden frame supporting the fascinating self-portrait you are painting into the personal essay section.

The first step is called the “hook,” because it is what immediately catches your reader’s attention. “The best essays,” writes expert Juliet Farmer from StudentDoctor.net, “grab the reader’s attention on the first read, and hold it even if it’s the last essay of the day for the reader.” This could be achieved with a quote, story, or anecdote, as long as it is directly applicable to the scope of your essay.

Next comes the “program.” This is where you briefly answer the question, “Why do you want to go to medical school (i.e. this ‘program’)?” In regards to this topic, Fero states: “At [the University of Washington], when the committee members read the AMCAS personal statements they look for motivation–why the individual really wants to go into medicine; what really gave him or her the ‘call’, so to speak” (Stewart, 2002). They know how difficult medical school is, and therefore need assurance that applicants are dedicated in their decision to pursue medicine.

Move three, “background,” is your chance to explain what in your background qualifies you for medical school. Often, writers combine this with other moves, choosing to tell a story which shows their preparation for and drive toward medicine. This is not just a resume listing your achievements; rather, it describes what you gained from your most important life experiences. According to Barton et al. (2004), this typically includes personal narratives of experiences relating to illness, injury, death, medicine, work, sports, hobbies, or travel.

Due to short face time with the applications committee reader, the PS needs to “function as both an essay and an advertisement” (Farmer, 2007). So, after hooking your audience, explaining why you want to join the program, and presenting your background, it is now your time to “advertise”. Self-promotion, in this sense, is where you mention your volunteer work at the homeless shelter, your participation in a vaccination program in India, or other relevant experience with work, school, volunteering, extracurricular activities, or hobbies. Be careful, though, to only briefly include those details which are relevant, and not to waste time or space mentioning interesting but irrelevant experiences. This needs to be meaningful and help your audience connect to you, not just a list of impressive details.

The last of the rhetorical moves is the “projection” move. This is the stage where you outline your career goals, your life aspirations. Where do you see yourself in twenty years? Whether you see yourself pioneering new techniques in heart surgery or making home visits in rural America, you should share this vision. Doing so will reveal to your audience that you have carefully considered your options, and that you have a real goal to become a physician.

These five rhetorical moves give you a framework with which to structure your essay. But yet again, if the most successful PSs use this format, what will make yours stand out? This is where authentic personal narrative come into play.

Come back next week for the second part of the series where the author discusses personal narratives and offers final thoughts about how to write a winning personal statement.

This article was originally published on StudentDoctor.net on September 19, 2012.

References
American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service. (2011). AACOMAS Application Instructions 2012, 13. Retrieved from http://www.aacom.org/Documents/AACOMASInstructions.pdf
American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). (2011). How to apply. Retrieved from https://www.aamc.org/students/applying/amcas/how_to_apply/.
Barton, E., Ariail, J., & Smith, T. (2004). The professional in the personal: The genre of personal statements in residency applications. Issues in Writing, 15(1), 76-124.
Bekins, L. K., Huckin, T. N., & Kijak, L. (2004). The personal statement in medical school applications: Rhetorical structure in a diverse and unstable context.Issues in Writing,15(1), 56-75.
Corbett, E. P. J. (1990). Classical rhetoric for the modern student. New York: Oxford University Press, 1.
Farmer, J. (2007). Before you write your personal statement, read this. StudentDoctor.net. Retrieved from http://studentdoctor.net/2007/06/before-you-write-your-personal-statement-read-this/
Freedman, J. (2010). Personal statement myths. StudentDoctor.net. Retrieved from http://studentdoctor.net/2010/04/personal-statement-myths/.
Harvard Medical School (HMS). (2011). Class Statistics. Retrieved from http://hms.harvard.edu/admissions/default.asp?page=statistics
Harvard University. (2011). The Medical School Personal Statement. [Powerpoint Presentation]. Retrieved from http://www.ocs.fas.harvard.edu/students/careers/medicine/applicationprocess/ personal_statement_2011.pdf
Huiling D. (2007). Genre analysis of personal statements: Analysis of moves in application essays to medical and dental schools. English for Specific Purposes, 26(3): 368-392.
Jones, S., & Baer, E. A. (2003). Essays that worked for medical school. Westminster, MD: Ballantine Books, 32-34, 40.
Stewart, M. (2002). Perfect personal statements: law, business, medical, graduate school. Lawrenceville, NJ: Peterson’s. In order of reference, the following pages were consulted: 112, 8, 111, 105, 16-19
Tips for Writing Personal Statements. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Health Professions Program. Retrieved from http://www.cmu.edu/hpp/achieve/pstips.html

Mastering The Medical School Personal Statement, Part 1

By Joseph Love

Part one of a two part series about how to write a winning personal statement. Come back next week for the second part and more information about how to use your words to sell yourself!

The Doom
Students typically have strong aversions to the personal essay because we’re told to avoid using personal pronouns throughout our entire academic career. Subconsciously, we’ve learned “I”, “My”, “We”, and “Our” are telltale signs of bias, unreliability, and inaccuracy. The aversion isn’t that we actually fear expressing our opinions, but that we simply aren’t comfortable writing about ourselves in memoir form. That’s it. I say this with certainty because most poorly written student essays suffer from the same recurring errors, and when I address students about the issue, the response is overwhelmingly the same: “I didn’t know how else to write it.”

The Outline
Some schools are polite enough to give strict requirements on essays. They want x-number of words on why this school, x-number on your academic career, and x-number on autobiographical information. These are blessings in disguise, but they must be approached logically. Instead of sitting down and pounding out 200 words and moving on to the next section, consider that every other applicant is doing the same thing, and that the pound-it-out method doesn’t necessarily produce coherent thoughts. You need to know exactly how those words will be allocated. If you have to write 200 words on “Why this school,” divide up that section accordingly. For example, in 200 words, you might spend 50 words on research opportunities provided by a university, 100 words on the specific course of study you plan to pursue, and 50 words on the advantage of their alumni networks. By outlining each section before you write, you will avoid rambling and be able to move on to the next section.

Maybe your school only provides you with an overall word maximum, but still gives you specific areas to talk about. A good rule of thumb is to divide up the total word count between each section, allotting equal space for each topic. If you feel more passionately about one section, feel free to write more, but don’t do it at the total expense of another. To solve this, you can also create a mandatory word-minimum per topic. By breaking these sections down as discussed above, you’ll be able to give a sense of coherence and completion to the essay.

While the essay is an opportunity for you to tell a school all about yourself, it’s also an opportunity for the school to evaluate how you think (not necessarily judge who you are). Doctors are smart people, but they are organized, methodical people who can address subjects directly, logically, and completely. Some smart people simply don’t come across as observably organized or methodical, and their writing reflects this. When deciding between two candidates for a program spot, a medical college’s best investment in resources is the candidate who promises the most in return. This person is disciplined, conscientious, organized, and clear-thinking. If the structure of you essay doesn’t say this about you, it’s a good bet you won’t be considered the better-qualified candidate. Taking the time to map out your essay is a major step in standing out amongst your competition.

It’s All About You
The application essay is not the time to be humble. Medical schools want qualified applicants, for sure, but they also want confident applicants. Your transcript will show your academic proficiency (and if it doesn’t, the essay is the perfect opportunity to explain why), so your essay needs to be about your ambition, your philosophy, and your talents. That said, show maturity in your self-image. Acknowledge your accomplishments and shortcomings, your advantages and disadvantages, but keep it in perspective. For example, if you conduct undergraduate research in a lab setting, by all means say so, explaining briefly what your research is (in lay terms), how often you do it, and why you decided to do it. Your audience will determine if your time investment and the research is impressive and meaningful.

Relaying personal information in a useful way is the most difficult part of writing an essay. The way this information is written will tell your audience how you deal with stress, how you view yourself, and how you identify with others. If you come from a disadvantaged background or are a minority, the most important information that a reader should take away from your personal story is that you are strong-willed and determined to overcome your particular challenges. Bitterness, self-pity, self-loathing, or casting blame are turn-offs regardless of background. If your life has been absolute hell, explain how you got to where you are. The story of overcoming, of doing in spite of, tells the audience exactly how mentally tough you are. However, don’t play up a disadvantage if it hasn’t actually caused you hardship. If you’re invited for an interview, it is much easier to back up a truthful claim than attempt to elaborate a false one on the spot.

If you’re a student with good grades and a relatively unburdened life, you may think your personal story isn’t all that interesting, or worse, you may come across as naïve or unaffected by the struggles of others. This is the reason medical schools look for students who volunteer, shadow physicians, and are involved in extra-curricular activities. Being a member of your community means interacting with other members of your community. In other words, you don’t isolate yourself and have the ability to work with people outside of your social group. If you aren’t getting out of the house, you aren’t expanding your worldview, so get out there and gain experience. Then, write about it.

Imagine the work of the admissions committee, reading thousands of essays from all sorts of backgrounds. That said, the background itself is less important than the person that background has created, and medical schools want students who are community centered, world-wise, and driven. You are all these things, and now you know how to get it across.

Remember to return next week for the second part!

This article was originally published on StudentDoctor.net on June 4, 2013.

 

Medical School Interviews: 6 Common Mistakes That Admissions Officers Hate

By Joel Butterly

Medical school interviews come in all different shapes and sizes. Some schools interview one-on-one, some have multiple interviewers, some have multiple-mini-interviews (MMI). Some schools use students, others use faculty, and some use alumni.

In preparing this article, I interviewed admissions officers from the top medical schools – Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Penn, UCSF, and others. What I found was that their advice on med school interviews varied tremendously.

However, nearly every person I interviewed commented on several common mistakes that applicants are constantly making. These aren’t always deal-breaking mistakes, but for an applicant who is right on the cusp of admission, avoiding these mistakes can be the difference between a fat envelope and a thin rejection letter.

1. Don’t assume that the interviewer knows how serious you are about becoming a doctor.
In your interview, you must demonstrate that you are fully committed to this field, and convey a clear sense of purpose in your professional goals. Never assume that applying and showing up for an interview is sufficient evidence of your commitment. Here’s why:

Admissions officers have a job. For medical school admissions officers, that job includes vetting and selecting the best possible students for their program. One of the most important criteria by which these admissions officers are judged is the dropout rate. If 20% of the students that they admit end up dropping out midway through medical school, it reflects terribly on the admissions officers who selected them.

Moreover, medical students are extremely expensive. Medical schools pour hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of dollars into training their students. Every time a student drops out, that money is wasted. Even the wealthiest medical schools cannot afford too many dropouts.

Long story short, admissions committees are extremely sensitive to indications that an applicant will “go the distance.” You would do well to convey this to your interviewer. Similarly, admissions committees are extremely sensitive to indications that an applicant is not 100% sure that medical school is right for them.

The most common example cited by admissions officers was that applicants, when asked why they wanted to attend medical school, would routinely respond that their parents are doctors. This is never a good strategy. To an admissions officer, this is like saying that you are going to move to Bhutan because your friend did it and seemed to enjoy it. Of course, you can mention that your parents are physicians, but leading with this fact is a surefire way of indicating that you haven’t thought your decision through.

Moreover, when asked why you wish to become a doctor, make your answer specific. Don’t say, “I’ve always wanted to help people.” Say how you want to help people. Better yet, give a short story that is representative of what you want to do, and why. The more specific and concrete, the more likely you are to seem like a safe bet to admissions officers.

2. Understand how difficult medical school and practicing medicine can be – and be able to explain why this isn’t a problem for you
Admissions officers want to make absolutely certain that applicants know what they are getting themselves into. The reality is that very few, if any applicants truly understand the commitment it takes to see themselves through medical school and residency.

Nonetheless, you might consider talking with some current residents or recent residency graduates to figure out what the absolute worst parts about becoming a doctor are. You should probably know this for your own sake, but for the purposes of the interview, being well-informed about the downsides of medical school and practicing medicine is a huge asset.

If your interviewer doesn’t think you know what you are getting yourself into, they may reject you because they don’t think you’ll be able to stomach the challenges. It is crucial that you show them otherwise.

Spend some time thinking about how to address these “downsides” in an interview. You could rephrase them as a positive feature: “I love intense working environments, and I think working late-nights in the hospital when there are a million things to do, and not enough people to do them, would be really exhilarating.” Obviously, you don’t want to be too over-the-top, or the interviewer will know you’re full of it.

You might also explain why these downsides don’t matter, in light of other considerations. Maybe you are so determined and passionate about a certain aspect of medicine, that these things are a small price to pay.

Bottom line: make sure that you take a moment in your interview – if at all possible – to show that you know something about the challenges you will face, and that you are fully committed to facing them head-on.

3. Compassion is key – don’t forget to show that you’re human 
Shockingly, many students go into the interview too scared or too hyped-up to demonstrate a critical characteristic: compassion. Without compassion – and a lot of it – practicing medicine is nearly impossible.

Make sure that you don’t ignore the human element of your candidacy. Interviewers know your test scores, your GPA, they’ve seen your resume…now show them that there is a compassionate, amiable human being behind it all.

Admissions committees (at least for many of the top-ranked schools) sit and debate whether an applicant should be admitted. Your interviewer will probably speak or write on your behalf during these deliberations. If you have failed to convey your compassion and amiability during your interview, chances are good that your interviewer will not fight too hard if other members of the committee decide to pass on your application. Thus, you cannot give the impression that you lack compassion; if you do, your allies on the admissions committee will be dramatically reduced.

4. A Student Interviewer is not an excuse to relax
Most applicants breathe a small sigh of relief when they find out that they are being interviewed by a medical student. This is a mistake for two reasons.

First, these student interviewers are more likely to be an “interviewer-from-hell” than their senior counterparts. They are eager to prove how rigorous and devoted they are, and that might translate to a much more aggressive and rigorous interview style.

Second, admissions committees do not send in student interviewers with the expectation that they will perform a different job than any other interviewer. They are assessing the same things as the more seasoned interviewers, and so you should maintain the same level of composure and professionalism as you would for any other interview.

A number of admissions officers and student interviewers have told me that many applicants seem to think that they can be more casual when a student is interviewing them. The truth is that while this is sometimes the case, most applicants go way too far. This is an interview, not a social interaction, and trying to act like you’re talking with a friend on the street will only make you seem unprofessional and unqualified.

Bottom line: keep it professional.

5. Know your application
Many interviewers will have your application right in front of them. Sometimes, they will start the interview asking you questions about different parts of your application. You need to know your application(s) by heart. If you put something in the activities/experiences section of the AMCAS application, and can’t remember what you wrote when your interviewer asks about it, you are going to look foolish, if not dishonest. This happens surprisingly often.

Bottom line: You should be able to recall every part of your application, so that you can talk about it fluently if and when you are asked.

6. Be honest about your weaknesses 
Many interviewers ask applicants about their weaknesses. When discussing your weaknesses, honesty and candor can make the difference between a great response and one which will, at best, do nothing for your chances of admission.

Your biggest weakness is not that you work too hard, care too much, take on too many challenges, are too hard on yourself, or any other strength-disguised-as-a-weakness. As soon as you give one of these self-serving responses, you have grouped yourself into the roughly 50% of applicants (according to one source) who believe that offering one of their positive characteristics as their “biggest weakness” is an effective strategy. It isn’t. Admissions officers see right through this, and are likely to feel that you are either too immature to be self-reflective, or too dishonest to give a straightforward answer.

This doesn’t mean that you should go nuts criticizing yourself. Don’t say that you are a heavy drinker, a drug addict, a criminal, or a psychopath; you’re right to keep those thing to yourself. However, you can and should talk about things that you really do struggle with, and how you’re working to improve on those things (this latter component is very important).

For example, maybe you are easily frustrated, have difficulty taking orders, or struggle to memorize long lists of details. What is important is that you recognize these things, and explain that (and how) you are working on improving them. This shows honesty, integrity, and maturity – all things which medical schools want to see in their students.

Bottom line: you have weaknesses which are undesirable. Pick one of them, work on it, and then tell your interviewer about it with a straight face.

Joel Butterly is a JD Student at Yale University and received his AB in Government & International Studies from Dartmouth University.

This article was originally published on StudentDoctor.net on December 22, 2013.

Your Medical School Application: More than just a personal statement

By Jessica Freedman MD

MedEdits

When I initially start speaking with applicants applying to medical school, their primary concern is what they will write in their personal statement. While the personal statement is an extremely important part of how you will be evaluated, you also have the opportunity to express what is important to you and why in your activities entries. The key word here is “opportunities.” When I used to review applications, I viewed the candidate who didn’t use this activity description space wisely as misguided or unwise. Regardless of how many objective measures are instituted to screen applications, a tremendous degree of subjectivity influences a reviewer’s decision making during every part of the application process. Thus, it works in your favor to use every opportunity to illustrate why you are a great candidate; you never know what one of the several individuals reviewing your application might find interesting.

If you are applying through the Texas Medical and Dental Schools Application Service, the limit for each activity description is a mere 300 characters, which forces applicants to write about only the “nuts and bolts” of their experience. However, the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine and the American Medical College Application Service have more generous activity description limits, and you should take advantage of them.

“But wait, I read on a forum on SDN that I should keep these descriptions as brief as possible.” I hear this every year. Long ago, the limits on character counts for activity descriptions were more stringent, but this advice is now antiquated. I can tell you from experience that applicants who write fully about their experiences do extremely well in the process. Consider the person reviewing your application; do you think they would rather read bullet points or a descriptive and interesting narrative about your experiences? Indeed, you may have a reviewer who is rushed and might simply skim your application, but let him make the choice if he wants to read less. More often, reviewers are looking for compelling evidence that you are worthy of an interview invitation, and activities descriptions, especially for an applicant who doesn’t have “over the top stats,” can make or break this decision. In fact, a few schools openly state that they now place greater emphasis on the activities than on the personal statement.

What titles do I write? What if I don’t have a contact name? What do I put down for the hours? Don’t become overly focused on these decisions. Give the activity a descriptive title and a logical category. You won’t necessarily have a contact for every activity. Your hours worked may have varied over the course of your involvement in any given activity. As with everything in your application, be as honest and accurate as possible. If you participated in one activity every other week for five hours over the course of two years, then state that. Only in extreme cases does anyone actually call a contact or verify your involvement. This is medicine, and to some degree, it is assumed that you are honest and professional. That said, never lie or write something that isn’t true and don’t over-embellish. If you worked in a lab, for example, and only spent your summer pipetting and entering data in a computer, then state that. But, to enhance the entry, you could also write that this experience provided the foundation for a laboratory experience you had later on in which you did have greater responsibility.

As you write your activities, think not only about what you did during that activity but what it meant to you, what you learned and how it influenced your path and choices. As I always tell clients, the best applications demonstrate passion, enthusiasm, insight and introspection. Admissions committee members want to see your commitment to and understanding of the practice of medicine, but they also want to know that you are passionate about what you do. They don’t want your participation to be superficial, which gives the impression that you take on activities just for the sake of doing so. Demonstrate that your involvement is deep and that you actually learn something from everything in which you participate.

You cannot influence the order in which your activities are listed; the system automatically lists them in chronological order. The most recent activities are listed first and the more distant last. Consider this as you write your activities since this is the order in which the vast majority of reviewers will read your experience descriptions. For example, let’s say that your last shadowing or clinically relevant experience was two years ago, and you have seven other more recent experiences that the system will place ahead of that clinical experience.  In this situation, it would behoove you to “get some experience” that involves clinical exposure or revisit the doctor you shadowed two years ago so the dates for this experience can be entered as 20XX – present and be at the head of the list. In the description narrative, you would explain that you have shadowed this doctor off and on for two years.

You should devote as much time to composing your activity descriptions as you do to writing your personal statement. And, keep in mind that reviewers typically read your activities descriptions before your personal statement since this is the predetermined order of the application. You want them to read your statement with a “good impression” of who you are based on what they have already read in your activity descriptions. This “halo effect” will then influence the way they interpret your personal statement and will more likely lead to an interview invitation.

Jessica Freedman, MD, a former medical admissions officer, is president of MedEdits, a medical school, residency and fellowship admissions consulting firm. She is also the author of the MedEdits blog, and The Medical School Interview: From preparation to thank you notes

MCAT STUDY SCHEDULE: Your go-to resource for the big exam

Drag resources to the calendar to create your study schedule. (Click to enlarge)

Determining how you will study for the MCAT is almost as daunting as studying for the exam itself! There are plenty of resources out there and depending on your background, you may need to focus more attention on certain areas. Creating a study schedule that is specifically customized to your needs can maximize your chances of success on the big exam.

Here at PREMED.me, we decided to make this process as easy as possible. We’ve taken the most commonly used MCAT study materials and broken them down by chapter and section. Using our calendar tool, you can click and drag resources by chapter to create a personalized schedule. This will allow you to plan your studying over a variable time frame and most importantly keep track of your study progress. Can’t finish the Examkrackers Biology Lecture 3 today? No problem, drag it to the next available timeslot. Decide you need to add another resource to your repertoire? Go ahead! It’s as easy as a click and a drag.

 

For those looking for a little more guidance, we’ve spent the time and analyzed some of the most popular study schedules on the Internet to come up with our suggested 3-month study plan. We’ve had a few premeds test this schedule out over the past summer and it seems to work very well! If you’ve made a study schedule using a different time frame or a different set of resources, share it with us via [email protected] and we’ll make it available to all PREMED.me users!

Just click the Calendar link on the Dashboard and you’re ready to get started. Give it a try and let us know what you think.

If you have any suggestions for other resources you’d like to see listed, send an email to [email protected], and we’ll have them up as soon as possible.